How to Retrofit Your Home for Accessibility

By Jamie Goldberg

Here is a room-by-room checklist of steps you can take if someone in your family is impacted by a lasting injury, disability or age-related physical challenges. Many of these improvements will also make your home safer and more comfortable for able-bodied residents and guests alike, as well as potentially increase its value.

The suggestions listed below in the “immediate/affordable” category are simple to implement by a do-it-yourselfer or handyman, or in a single trip by a contractor, electrician or plumber. The ideas noted in the “long-term/costlier” category are intended to address serious, ongoing conditions and involve more planning, permits and a range of professionals to make large-scale or structural changes to your home.

This home by Balance Associates has ramps instead of stairs for more accessibility.

This home by Balance Associates has ramps instead of stairs to accommodate wheelchair users.

Entryways and stairs

Immediate/affordable

  • Be sure that there’s ample lighting at all the home’s entry doors. A motion-sensor light can be ideal for this purpose.
  • Remove any trip hazards, like stray water cans or cracked pavers, from walkways.
  • Add a bench or shelf near the door as a resting place for visitors and packages.
  • Add a handrail on the inside stair wall to supplement the outside hand rail.
  • Add non-skid treads or a secured-in-place runner to eliminate a trip hazard on uncarpeted stairs.
  • Replace standard switches with easier-to-use rocker switches at entryways and throughout the home.

Long-term/costlier 

  • Speak to a qualified remodeler, especially one with a Certified Aging in Place Specialization (CAPS), about creating a zero-step entry, adding a ramp to your home and widening doors and hallways to accommodate a wheelchair user.
  • Add a three-way switch at the top and bottom of staircases for safe footing in both directions.

Sleeping and living areas

Immediate/affordable

  • Move someone in a wheelchair, using a walker or lacking good balance, to a first-floor bedroom. If you don’t have a readily available space, consider converting any private first-level room with a smoke detector and window.
  • Allow room near the bed for a walker or wheelchair.
  • Change a step-in shower threshold to roll-in access.
  • Change an older, pre-code shower valve to a pressure-balanced, anti-scald model.
  • Consider installing two showerheads in a shower used by more than one person, so that one showerhead will always be in a seated user position.
  • Consider one of the newer medicine cabinets with cooling capacity for medications requiring refrigeration. Robern offers one through its M Series line.
  • Change at least one vanity to a lower-height, roll-under model for a wheelchair user.
  • Round the corners on all countertops to minimize impact injuries.
  • Maximize the color contrast between vanity cabinets and countertops.
This kitchen by Mikiten Architecture & Universal Design was designed for a woman who uses an electric wheelchair.

This kitchen by Mikiten Architecture & Universal Design was designed for a woman who uses an electric wheelchair.

Kitchens

Immediate/affordable

  • Add roll-out shelves to pantries and base cabinets for easier access and visibility.
  • Replace knob-style cabinet hardware and faucets with lever-style handles.
  • Add a lazy susan or swing-out shelf to hard-to-reach base corner cabinets.
  • If the kitchen is large enough to accommodate a table, add one to allow a wheelchair or walker user to help with meal preparation.

Long-term/costlier 

Working with a CAPS-designated contractor and designer (as well as the homeowner’s own qualified medical team), remodel the kitchen with wider work aisles for wheelchair or scooter transit, lowered prep areas, accessible storage and optimal appliance positioning.

  • Replace existing appliances with those that are more accessible and safer to use than traditional versions. Examples include side-opening wall ovens, induction cooktops, ventilation hoods with re-locatable control panels, drawer dishwashers, microwave drawers and double-drawer refrigerators.
  • For wheelchair users, consider cabinets with higher toe kicks, like KraftMaid’s Passport Series or customizable lines; table-height, roll-under cooktop and sink cabinets; and drawer/peg-system storage for dishes and glassware rather than wall-mounted cabinets.

Related:

Bob Vila is the home improvement expert widely known as host of TV’s This Old House, Bob Vila’s Home Again, and Bob Vila. Today, Bob continues his mission to help people upgrade their homes and improve their lives with advice online at BobVila.com. His video-rich site offers a full range of fresh, authoritative content – practical tips, inspirational ideas, and more than 1,000 videos from Bob Vila television.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.